The Lightning Struck Tower and the Star of Hope

It has been a sad and worrying week. Some of my loved ones are going through a terrible time; it is hard to see those you care about in crisis.  It’s got me thinking about grace under pressure and how we deal with those times when our world crumbles.

Being a tarot nut, I so often turn to its wisdom, in good times and bad. This week has drawn my attention to two Major Arcana cards whose energies feel very present at the moment. The first is the Tower and the second the Star. At first glance, they look the complete antithesis of each other but I always think of them as a pair who work together to bring movement and healing.

The Tower’s imagery is pretty dramatic and alarming. Traditional images often portray a tower struck by lightning, the structure crumbling and its inhabitants falling to the ground. It doesn’t take years of studying tarot to know that this card speaks of those sudden, shocking happenings in our life that rock our foundations and bring us to our knees. When things happen that change everything; when we find ourselves standing amongst the rubble that had once been the dependable structure of our life, we meet the Tower in all it awesome power. It can feel like the most unwelcome visitor.

Despite its troubling reputation, the Tower can also bring liberation. Sometimes its energies are just what we need when some area of our life has become stagnant or when we are ignoring things that desperately need to change. I think quite often the Tower turns up when we have been resisting these much-needed changes; when we repeatedly ignore life’s subtle hints that all is not well, it is as if the pressure builds and something has to give. If we really need to engage with that place of transformation and we don’t go willingly, then often life will take us there regardless. If we look a little deeper and are honest with ourselves, what feels like a nasty surprise or a sudden shock can reveal that a push to transform had actually been simmering away beneath the surface for some time.

The Tower comes to bring life-altering momentum; it comes with powerful revelation; it comes to smash apart our illusions; it gives us the opportunity to dismantle the psychological walls we build around us that are no longer a shelter but a prison. It introduces us to new ways to see and experience the world, ourselves and others. It might feel horrendously tough to be flattened by its unstoppable force but it does present us with the opportunity to make sure our foundations are good and true, that we might rebuild on a stronger footing. Of course, the Tower is not always a full- on wreaking ball; it can come as a sudden revelation that blows you away; major paradigm shifts are Tower moments. Whatever form it takes, you can be sure the old structures will fall away and suddenly you are left looking at a new landscape once obscured.

After the Tower, the Star is a soothing balm. The Star is a card of healing renewal, of hope; it is the calm after the storm. Tower moments can be so painful that our trust in life is shaken; the Star is the return of that trust. The Tower can be utterly disorientating, what we thought we knew about ourselves and life can shatter – all signposts gone, all recognisable landmarks obliterated – but the Star reminds us that we all have an inner compass, a guiding presence that will bring us through the darkest times. There is a beautiful quote from Virginia Woolf’s book Orlando which I have long-loved and which for me speaks so beautifully of the way the Tower and Star interact to bring growth and healing to our lives:

 

Change was incessant, and change perhaps would never cease. High battlements of thought, habits that had seemed as durable as stone, went down like shadows at the touch of another mind and left a naked sky and fresh stars twinkling in it.

If you meet the Tower, hold on to this quote; know that something new is being born; trust the process; nurture yourself as best you can and as the rubble falls about you, keep looking for that naked sky full of stars.

Tarot images from the Druidcraft Tarot by Philip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm – artwork by Will Worthington

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Rekindling the Fire

Imbolc Shrine

Imbolc Shrine

It’s been a while since I have seriously and consistently celebrated the festivals of the Wheel of the Year. For almost twenty years, these seasonal festivals have been the foundation of my spiritual practice but this recent period, with all its attending difficulties, has found me only sporadically writing and performing rituals for them.

After so many years of orientating myself through the honouring of these seasonal changes, it has been strange to let them go for a while. In the past, the qualities and themes of each season played an enormous part in my well-being. Through joyful times, they enriched my life and when life presented its inevitable struggles, I found the wisdom of the Wheel a huge help in getting through.

As the grief took hold of me, I stopped hearing and seeing the wisdom. The sense of spiritual connection that I had once felt crumbled in the face of the overwhelming loss that I was experiencing; the spiritual meaning that had once felt so deep and nourishing now appeared shallow and brittle.

persephone 2

When our spiritual survival kit stops working and there is nothing to replace it, we can suddenly feel ourselves resident in a psychological wasteland. The wasteland is an interesting place; it is a bleak and shadowed landscape, lifeless and featureless. It exists in parallel to normal life and those caught behind its veil can continue to witness life going on around them and yet cannot see its colours, or fully feel its sensations. It is as if we gaze at life through darkened glass. We can feel that we are in life but not of it. It’s a painful place to be.

It takes courage to function without any spiritual scaffolding but I have come to believe that this process is actually a very important part of all of our spiritual journeys. There are many stories and myths that tell of a descent to the Underworld. I have written here before about my love of the goddess Persephone. Her tale articulates so well the experience of being catapulted into the wasteland by painful change in our lives. Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld by the God of Death is an archetypal experience. We will all find ourselves in such a position at some point in our life when we lose something precious to us – a loved one; our health or any other loss that shakes us to our core.  When faced with such devastating change, we are compelled to take that journey to the land of the shades, and whilst there, we will encounter our hopelessness, cynicism and nihilism. It can feel like crying out into a void, hoping to hear an answer to our prayers but receiving only silence or echo.

We might fear that we are trapped in this grey place forever but gradually, and with faltering, meandering steps, we find our way back to the light. The darkness will always remain a part of us but somehow we will now understand its inherent wisdom. It changes us but it doesn’t have to destroy us.

I have just celebrated Imbolc. I wrote a ritual for it – my first in months. I threw myself in to decorating my shrine in honour of the season, making it pretty and decorating it with things that spoke of the first stirrings of spring.

Bride by Jane Brideson

Bride by Jane Brideson

Imbolc is strongly associated with the Celtic Goddess Brighid. She is a goddess of fire. At this time of the year she is the light that warms the soil and brings it to life; she is also the purifying and transformative flame that burns away all that no longer serves us and keeps us chained to the past. She is a matron of midwifery and as such is connected not only with physical birth but with helping us to birth new ways to be. When we are stuck and stagnant, her fiery energy brings movement – she is the rekindling; that glorious moment when we feel the life and hope within us returning.

Brighid has long been one of my special deities. I honoured and worked with her for many years but in these recent times of upheaval, she has felt very distant. Brighid was a core deity for me, so it was a surprise to sense my relationship with her slip away. I had started to feel that Brighid and I had lost touch for good but this last week, particularly since my Imbolc ritual, I have felt her presence growing.

This reconnection has undoubtedly been triggered by the realisation that I need to let go of some things I have been holding on to. When we are in the wasteland, the past calls to us; all that we have lost resides in our memories. Reaching out to the past is a natural response to grief; all that is lost to us returns in those moments of remembering. It is a way of coping with loss and honouring what we grieve but we cannot stay in this place for ever – we must come to the place of letting go. This process takes a long time – months, years even – there is no timetable that we can follow; these things unfold at their own pace, but we must all return to the surface – Persephone can’t stay in the Underworld forever or spring will never return.

This last month I have been able to take a step back and see just how much I have been clinging to the past, so much so that the current blessings of my life are being missed. Key to reclaiming the present is acceptance – beneath the heavy weight of anger and impotence that loss brings, awaits our acceptance. Acceptance is compassionate and patient and will wait for as long as we need to discover it within us.  It is an extraordinary moment when we begin to feel its effect upon us, as I have this past week.

For my Imbolc ritual I felt the strong urge to offer up my recent past to Brighid’s healing fire, handing it over to her with trust and faith that nothing is truly lost but merely transformed into something new. I made a commitment to myself to embrace the tender stirrings of healing and renewal happening within me and in doing so, I have felt Brighid’s protective, joyful and empowering presence growing inside me.

Snowdrop by Amy Weiss

Snowdrop by Amy Weiss

A month ago I could never have envisaged this shift happening but the gift of acceptance has laid down its thread of light to guide me back from the wasteland. The wasteland is not the enemy, or a punishment –it is, in fact, a place of healing although it can feel the opposite when we wrestle with our pain. The wasteland is the dark, cold, wet soil of winter waiting patiently for the warming light to stir it. The rekindling has come; the frozen earth cracked open by a tender snowdrop.

 

 

 

 

The Colour Red

The autumn equinox brought that moment when the light and dark hours of the day, for just a brief moment, were perfectly equal. That moment is like the silent, still gap between breathing in and out; sometimes we catch ourselves noticing it, frozen in our observance of its stillness but knowing full well that we must release back into the relentless movement of the inhale and the exhale.

And now the dark seeps across the lines, spreading out and staking a claim to more of the day than I would currently like. Samhain will soon be here…

For modern Pagan’s the festival of Samhain celebrates the earth’s shedding, that part of its cycle that expresses the dying back and letting go. Amongst other things, it honours the rot and the shit, that through the miraculous transformation of death and decomposition, transmutes into the rich compost that feeds new life.

It is perhaps easier for us to accept this process in the natural world around us but painful to experience it in our own lives. This year, Samhain will hold a powerful resonance for me as I find myself walking away from a 27 year old marriage.

Endings can have their own unique tonalities; sometimes they are joyous things: the end of pain or a difficult time; sometimes they bring almost unhealable grief: the death of those we love and the things we cherish. When we are there in the midst of the chaos that endings can bring; we can only, as a friend of mine recently advised, ‘keep breathing’. Just like that momentary pause of equinox, there are still, clear moments but we quickly realise that none of us can stand truly motionless; life will not allow us the luxury of a long pause because our hearts continue to beat and betray the unstoppable nature of living.

I am walking away from a whole life-time of shared experience; someone (me, something deep inside pushing for it) set fire to the forest and now I stand at the centre of a strange kind of devastation, one that brings deep feelings of sadness and grief but also a sense of the necessity of that act.

In our northern hemisphere, at Samhain, we can walk in the forest and smell the rich, woody earthiness of the mulch beneath our feet; the wet, rotting mass breaking down gradually but relentlessly into the food that will sustain the forest’s life. In less temperate areas of the planet, where the change of seasons are fewer, this vital transformation crucial for the continuation of a forest’s life  must come from other means. Fire plays its part; stripping back whole areas to charred plains that on first observation are distressing and lifeless. However, the nutrients from the ash prepare the ground for new life just as effectively as the moist, rich compost of our own woodlands and are as necessary to the survival of those habitats.

This said, on a human level – although the inspiration of nature can help us deal with the changes that we encounter – the courage it takes to let go – the pain and uncertainty of it – are no easier to bear and we are called upon to trust in the process, to face the growing darkness without even knowing if the light will ever reappear.

For me, there are places of hope in my life that keep me going when I feel the exhaustion upend me or when the fear of the future paralyses me; even amongst the hurt, guilt and confusion can be found strength, love and joy (although it might take a greater effort to see it, or sense its presence, on those days when all that has happened weighs heavy).

Yesterday evening, the autumnal sky in the west shone with a golden light reminiscent of Turner’s paintings; in the east was a vast bank of the darkest cloud, a wash of murky browns and greys, thick with rain. The two skies began to merge, the cloud taking on the light as if the world below were on fire and it reflected its burning. And there, drawn across the darkening sky, a rainbow, it’s most dominant colour, a vivid red…the colour of love, of passion, of the blood that pumps through our hearts; the colour of the energy and will to keep living and breathing and being, whatever life brings; whatever losses we inflict or endure.

 

Naked Bliss

I have just come back from a blissful week away at the OBOD Healing Retreat. It was held in the grounds of both Sunfolk http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/allankidney/sun-folk/ and Spielplatz http://www.spielplatzoasis.co.uk/ , both of which are Naturist clubs.

The Retreat itself was focused on engaging with the wellbeing of body and spirit; a week of wonderful, healthy food, supportive therapies, beautiful surroundings, saunas and swimming, all with the added joy of being able to be naked without others finding it strange or threatening.

From the outside looking in, Naturism can seem more than a little eccentric. We have some peculiarly distorted and rather hypocritical attitudes towards nakedness in our society. Sex and nudity are well used tools to sell just about anything but despite these supposedly liberal values, getting naked can feel fraught with difficulty. Many of us are not comfortable in our own skins and suffer from body loathing and disconnection. It is little wonder why: there is a daily bombardment of images of the ‘perfect’ body. Apparently this is a thin, young, pert and toned one that has been airbrushed and homogenised out of any blemish or uniqueness; unreal bodies that not even the thin, young and pert can emulate! We are daily subjected to a pernicious form of body fascism, whereby we are repeatedly informed that our bodies do not match up; that they are not beautiful or even vaguely acceptable; that we can be happy with them by buying and using the right products and even then will inevitably fall short. This fosters some deeply damaging attitudes towards the body and our own nakedness. My heart goes out to kids who are growing up in this environment; it is a hard enough struggle for many adults to defy the unrealistic expectations about our bodies that are placed upon us; even harder for those still growing and learning about what it means to be emotional beings living and moving through our physical selves.

Much good work had been done via mainstream TV via the likes of Gok Wan, who (bless him!) understands that if you engage positively with your own nakedness, you transform the way you feel about yourself – not only on the surface level of appearance but also deeper down in your being.

Being naked in nature is truly glorious; being naked with others builds bonds of intimacy that, until you experience it, is hard to explain. It is not about sex – although we in our sex saturated society might assume that it is – it is more to do with shedding, not only ones clothes but ones psychological and emotional barriers and defences. When we have the courage to fully reveal our skin, we reveal something deeper of ourselves. When we are clothed, we can also be emotionally and intellectually veiled, presenting ourselves in ways that hide who we truly are. However, I am a firm believer that the naked body never lies; in each individual’s unique contours and shape is written the story of their lives. Our true emotions and thoughts ultimately sculpt our bodies and when we undress in front of another human being, we reveal that story to them; we share our deepest vulnerabilities and our hard won strengths. When this deeper unveiling is witnessed by another, you realise how beautiful the human body is, regardless of shape or size and, at its best, this experience blesses us with the opportunity to share some real intimacy with another.

During my week away I had some wonderful naked saunas, swims and ceremonies, shared with some lovely people. One afternoon, I had been in the sauna and my friend Richard persuaded me to take a swim. It had been a blustery, rainy day and I was a little reluctant to step out into the weather, up the lane towards the open-air pool. I will never forget the exhilaration of walking out naked from the dark sauna into the bright day, the air sharply cool upon my skin, tip-toeing through the fallen acorns and beautiful trees, sinking into the chilly water of the pool. This became a daily ritual, which now I am back in the ‘real’ world, I miss terribly. Each time I did it, I felt absolutely at home in my body and myself; experiencing the kind of child-like joy that we can so often lose as adults; a sense of connection and exhilaration that is deeply healing in itself.

I also will never forget the night – after a very moving ritual in the woods – of returning back to the Yurt, a space full of naked bodies, each uniquely beautiful, skin glowing in the candle-light. But also that inner light of joy and emotion invoked by the ritual we had all just shared, was surfacing from each person, their skin and faces radiant with it.

As eccentric as it might seem in our strangely uptight world; getting naked can be the most joyful, profound and healing of experiences. If you doubt me, give it a go… you have nothing to lose but your modesty! :))

Lovely Folks on the OBOD Healing Retreat 2011

Invocations from the Body: Movement as Meditation

Through a life-long love of dancing and a long-term Yoga practice, I have become increasingly fascinated with movement as a form of meditation and prayer; I have also come to realise what a powerful tool meditative movement is in enabling a greater awareness not only of our life-force but also of our connection to the Divine.

In Druidry we understand this force as Nwyfre; in Yoga as Prana. What I find exciting is that we can connect to this energy in both stillness and movement. In Yoga, postures (Asana) and breathing exercises (Pranayama) are used to increase the presence and free flow of Prana/Nwyfre in the body. You don’t need to have practised Yoga for years to feel how this works – stop reading, take in a deep breath whilst having a good stretch and as you release these, notice how wonderful it feels and be aware of the sudden increase in energy flowing through you. This is Nwyfre. Mostly we ignore this feeling or pass over it quickly but the art of Yoga and other forms of meditative movement is to allow ourselves to become utterly absorbed in this process. In this act of focused fascination – of being totally present in our breath and movement – we come to strongly sense the reality of this energy; we learn to sense when it flows strongly and when it is depleted. Whether we approach the Light Body exercise from a place of stillness or movement actually doesn’t matter; the key is this focused awareness, being utterly present in each and every part of our body. In this vibrant state, we discover that the physical body is the gateway to our deeper selves and ultimately to the Divine.

When we engage with the body spiritually – with a loving and sensitive awareness and acceptance – we give ourselves the space to process things that might otherwise stay locked within us, perhaps sabotaging our attempts to grow. Through the many emotions and sensations that surface within our bodies daily, we are given the opportunity to learn a little more about ourselves and life. Sometimes these sensations and emotions can remain unprocessed and be stored in our bodies – particularly in the muscles – knots of tension that are the physical manifestation of a deeper psychological discomfort; these knots can limit the easy flow of Nwyfre in our systems. In using breath and movement – mindfully stretching and releasing – we help to clear physical and emotional channels, allowing the free movement of energy to flow through us more powerfully, strengthening and energising our whole beings. As we build a greater intimacy with our physical selves, we develop the potential to truly listen to what the body has to say. Both pain and rigidity or even pleasure and ease of movement, will tell us something important about where we find ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. The more we listen to the body, the more we recognise the interconnectedness of these states within us.

In my own physical Yoga practice I use a mixture of individual asana and vinyasa. Vinyasa are flowing sequences of postures moving one into the other. These appeal to the dancer in me and illustrate most clearly the powerful links between meditation, prayer, worship and movement. The most well know vinyasa is popularly called Salute to the Sun, or Surya Namaskar to give its Sanskrit name. Sun Salutations honour something dear to all Druids’ hearts: the vitality, joy and life-giving energy of the Sacred Sun. When I fully open myself to the dynamic flow of this vinyasa, I feel that I give praise with my whole body and being, and in doing so, open myself up to the qualities that I am honouring. My body becomes an expression of the sun’s strength, energy and creativity; my body becomes a celebration of life. When the heat of movement and the focus of mind and breath merge in seamless flow, I feel that I am a body of light. It’s important to stress that some days I feel tired and achy, my body heavy and as far away from dynamic flow as it is possible to get! It is then that I can sink into the stillness to feel the gentle hum of that light; there is pleasure in contrast.

I currently feel increasingly inspired to experiment with my own vinyasa, with the understanding that these are invocations from the body, viewing their creation as a kind of spiritual choreography. This spiritual engagement with my body I have come to perceive as a form of Sacred Dance. Like all joys of the body, be it dance, sex, music or song, I truly believe that through deep and ecstatic engagement with our physical selves, we can find a path through to the Divine. Watch children when they dance in that wonderfully unselfconscious way – totally absorbed in the exhilaration of the moment. They seem to glow – it’s as if you can actually see their little light bodies! Some might think that meditative and ecstatic states are very different experiences but for me there is a rather nice paradox here: in movement we come to a place of peaceful stillness and balance; at the heart of that stillness and balance, we feel the unending dance of life coursing through us. Whether we surrender into the stillness or embody the flow, we open to something greater than ourselves.               

The beauty of a spirituality that embraces the body is that we are given the opportunity to truly appreciate what a profound privilege it is to be ‘embodied’. In joyful and mindful movement – with gravity our wise and loyal partner in the dance – we are both grounded and boundless; muscle and bone and radiant light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Call to the Goddess and God of Imbolc

Brighid Light - Wendy Andrews

 

At Imbolc time we call upon the Goddess of the Sacred Flame, Maiden of the Snowdrops and the first stirrings of spring. Her seemingly fragile blossoming is filled with the strength of the inner fire of life, surviving the harshest frosts, snows and storms, just as the light of our spirit survives the darkness and cold, her love protecting it like hands cupped round a flame. She is that moment of magic as the first glow of light emerges from the dark horizon, signalling the coming of dawn.

She comes with her warmth and energy and quickens the seeds of our new life; she comes with the life-giving heat of her fire to thaw all that is frozen and trapped within us; she comes with the melting release of her healing waters, cleansing away the staleness of our spirits, the winter debris of our hearts. She is the liberation of the land from winter’s grip; freeing us from our own stagnation. She is the bright spark of life and inspiration that burns in us all; the hearth fire at the centre of our homes and hearts, sustaining and warming; a place to gather and draw inspiration, nourishment and comfort. She is the fire of passion that animates our creativity that we may create our world anew, that we too may become the spring. Goddess of the Sacred Flame and the Healing Waters, we open to you now,

We call upon the God of this time of quickening, he who has been held in the still darkness awaiting the warming and life-giving touch of the Goddess’s heat. Her fiery kiss melts the stillness and the first flow, barely perceptible, begins; the movement of new life ever building and strengthening.

As the God of renewing life, at the edge of our senses, we begin to feel his energy increasing, visible in the growing light and the first greening shoots of Imbolc. Like seeds that feel the stirrings of growth in the dark soil, we feel the first call of his desire, a sense that we must soon stretch, moving up from the warmth and safety of the dark to the ever quickening call of the light.  God of youth, beauty and love, we open to you.

Lighting the Inner Fire Meditation: 

It is a cold, crisp night in the hours just before dawn. The starry sky arches it vast, twinkling darkness above you. You are sat upon the earth; the soil is hard and frozen; the grass glistening with frost. The land is silent and asleep. Your body and being are motionless, chilled and inert like the winter earth but you sense inside yourself the stirrings of change and you know that you must prepare for its coming.

Draw your attention inward to the very centre of yourself; this place is the centre of the sacred circle of your being, and it is here that you will light the sacred fire; it is the spark of life; it is the fuelling heat at the centre of the planet; it is the burning sun at the heart of our galaxy; it is the fire of the smith that will magically melt and transform you; it is a candle flame of hope in the darkness.

Standing at the centre of you inner sacred circle, you see the tinder and dry wood of your life, ready to be lit, and in their lighting you know that the heat of this fire will bring a change in the land, will bring the first tender signs of new life and renewal, of growing strength.

Become aware of your solar plexus. There is a flame that always burns here. Take some of this perpetual flame upon your finger and now light the wood at the centre of your inner circle from it. At first it glows only beneath the dark wood. Blow upon it the breath of your ideas and inspiration. As you do this, the flames begin to grow until the fire lights up the darkness.

You find yourself back beneath the vast starry sky, upon the frosty, frozen earth, but now you are aware that there is a glow at the centre of your being. Feel its warmth and light spread out through your chest, down your pelvis, into your legs and feet; feel it moving up through your shoulders, down your arms and into your hands and fingers, up through your neck and into your head, until your whole body is filled with its golden heat and light. You are radiant in the darkness. Stay here in this moment for a while –take note of the feelings and images that rise…

Your attention moves from the inner glow to the land around where you sit. You gaze down at the once frozen soil beneath. The frost has melted into life giving moisture, droplets hanging from the blades of green, and through the earth a carpet of snowdrops rises, drinking in the life giving melt, strengthening themselves in the warmth of your glow. As if by magic you watch their brave green shoots pierce through, their delicate, white blossoms unfurl and hang in gentle bells of white. You have lit the fires of passion within and the land responds with the first tender signs of a new beginning. Pause for a moment; take note of all you feel and see…You gaze at the horizon; along the line of the land, a slim strip of the sky begins to lighten…the dawn will soon be here…

Hope is the Note

'Tree of Wishes' by Montserrat

 

I sorrow not though the world is wrapped in sleep

I sorrow not though the icy winds blast

I sorrow not though the snow falls hard and deep

I sorrow not this too shall soon be past

                                                                                    Scott Cunningham

The most poignant quality of the Winter Solstice festival is hope; a little spark of brightness at the darkest moment. No matter what our beliefs may be, hope is something we all endeavour to hold on to; being without hope feels deathly. But what is it that enables us to feel this most cherished of states even when all around us might suggest that our hope is merely an act of self-delusion?

A couple of Solstices back, we were in Tintagel in Cornwall. We had walked up to St Madron’s, the little church on the cliff. Once inside, I had lit some of the candles next to the beautiful Mary statue and sat contemplating the light that now filled the stillness of that simple space. The wind roared outside but the thick stone walls – so often buffeted by the fierce winds coming off the Atlantic Ocean – enclosed and held us. In the dusk, with the weather groaning and heaving outside and the candle light warming the greying light, I felt the most extraordinary peace. I felt safe, as safe and peaceful as the occasional times of sleeping in my mother’s bed as a child, an event that – like no other – made me feel that nothing would or could harm me. A couple of days later, we found ourselves back in St Madron’s on another windy night, listening to beautiful choral music; the voice of the powerful winds circling the building and the voices of the choir that filled its inner space, moved me to tears that night.

There is a beautiful modern altar window in St Madron’s that depicts the sun and moon and the changing of the seasons but there are also smaller, older windows that personify ‘faith’, ‘charity’ and, of course, ‘hope’. They seemed very apt standing before them at midwinter, knowing that the coldest weather was yet to come. So what is at the heart of these qualities that we might derive some wisdom and guidance from? It is true that we can be hopeful in happy times, when life is going well but hope really comes into its own when we ourselves are being buffeted by the fierceness of living; floored and wrong footed by the strength of it and the seeming powerlessness of our actions. Faith, hope and charity seem like such quaint Victorian concepts but on deeper inspection, they are all guiding lights in the darkest times.

For me ‘faith’ is not blind acceptance of dogma regardless of appropriateness; faith is about trusting in the direction that life and one’s spiritual journey will take you – it is actually a perpetual process of losing and regaining one’s faith and trust, moving into those moments of hopelessness that we might touch upon the mystery of Grace in our lives. Grace’s impact works best when all hope seems to be lost. Charity is not only about a duty of generosity to others, it is also about retaining an open heart, a generosity towards life itself; it is an unclenching of the spirit and an eagerness to share ourselves authentically; to step beyond our own fears, obsessions and self-preoccupations to truly be able to give of ourselves, to others and to the world, and in doing so, be willing and trusting enough to receive. In these ways, Charity and Faith feed and bolster our Hope; they give us the evidence that life and people are essentially good, that there is indeed much to be hopeful about.

However, there will be moments when we feel so low that hope appears lost. We need to sit and be, allow that darkness to enfold us like those meter thick walls in Cornish churches; let that enfolding take the brunt of stormy weather whilst we sit silently and wait for the light to slowly grow. Have you ever noticed that when we light a candle at night in an unlit room and focus on its flame, the periphery of our vision is filled with the darkness; this darkness – like those sturdy walls of St Madron’s Church – can enclose and support us; it is not the place where hope dies; it is the fertile and mysterious void where hope is born. Out of the darkness comes light and this is the simple and powerful message of the Winter Solstice. At this place of apparent lack, we find a small, still moment of Grace, sparking into being. Both Pagans and Christians symbolise this moment with the birth of a child – never a more appropriate image.

I started by asking what it is that enables us to hope beyond hope. I think it is because we know what it is to experience love – whether being loved, cherished and protected by our mothers or other loved ones or guardians, friends, lovers or children; we loving in return, knowing how extraordinary a feeling that is. Even if we are totally alone in the world and even if love feels utterly lost to us, the memory of love is powerful; the essence of love is everywhere, in the beauty of the natural world and in the simple gestures of human living whether it be the acknowledgement of self gifted by the passing smile of a stranger or any of the countless little things that fill our day with meaning.

I wish for you a Solstice filled with love and the sure knowledge that the sun will always rise again. I wish also that you might discover, time and again, that Hope is the clear, bright note of the heart and soul, struck in the still darkness, its sound rippling out through the blackness to call you home.

The Place of Being

Last weekend we saw the Red Deer herd out beyond Chale Green. Watching them from behind the hedge, one by one the hinds and their young raised their heads from grazing to look back at us. It is always a wonderful moment, finding yourself in a silent exchange with deer. There is a heightened stillness combined with a buzzing energy about these moments, all concerned held by an acute awareness and focus that makes time irrelevant; we become utterly mindful and present. The deer were silhouetted against the sea and it took a while for me to notice the large stag stood a little lower on the horizon. These creatures touch something deep and wordless in me.

The journey home brought several kestrel and buzzard sightings and before us, for the entire trip back, we were treated to the rising of the full moon, eerily vast as it surfaced from the summit of St Catherine’s Down, its softness sharpening to a hard white glow that stretched across the bay as we reached Luccombe.

The trees this autumn are the most extraordinary colours. They seem more intense than ever but perhaps this is because the memory of their intensity could never do justice to the reality and so each year seems more impressive than the last. Even my tiny little garden appears to be burning, the Acer and the Virginia Creeper so vibrant that I catch myself staring out the window countless times, instinctively drawing in the energy of those reds and oranges – my eyes eager for the lift it gives me.

Saturday, early evening, we ate at The Met, a tapas bar in Ventnor. It has the most amazing views of the sea, right on the esplanade, feet away from the ocean. It is a favourite place to watch the sea on windy days, the massive rollers powering in, so close at high tide. The skies over the sea are often dramatic and changeable and cormorants fly back and forth across the bay, skimming low across the surface, or sitting on the breakers, their wings stretched in worship. Another great plus is that coffee comes with a chocolate flake! What more could any girl want? – Lovely food, good coffee, chocolate, and the ocean!

After our meal, we stood in the dark watching the waves thundering in. The street lamps from the esplanade caught the white foam, giving the crests a luminous glow in the darkness, and the ocean looked vast and black and beautiful. In the sky above the harbour was Venus. Her brightness – just as the deer sighting from the previous weekend – cracked something open in me. Such a tiny but intense light in the darkness speaks simply and clearly to us all because, of course, it is such an obvious symbol of hope. Stars guide us; they keep us on course when navigation gets tricky. By their light we position ourselves and move forward, even when the terrain is too dark, vast and unknown to easily negotiate.

I have been feeling lost this year but feeling lost is not the same as being lost. In those moments with nature – when it touches upon that wordless place inside me – I know none of us are ever truly off course; we might be temporarily blinded or disorientated but this condition is so often a matter of perception, not of place or being. Philip Carr-Gomm, in his wonderful book The Druid Way, writes so beautifully and wisely about the paradoxical nature of journeying, of setting out upon a path and coming to find that the sense of movement (or lack of) we might feel is in many ways an illusion; wherever we find ourselves, lost or found, deep down, we are in the truest sense always home:

But death, like life, is full of paradoxes and although in one sense, on experiencing death of the body we begin a new stage of our journey, becoming a traveller in a wider brighter world, in another sense we may well discover that there is no journey – only a continuing revelation of the still centre – God/dess – the heart of Being. We uncover a great truth when we realise we are on a Journey through life. We uncover a great truth when we realise that there is no Journey.

The sight of Venus over a vast black ocean, spoke to me of that still centre, that place of Being. The fire of autumn reflects the intensity of love that life inspires, even at those moments when we shed all that we know, when we let ourselves fall and lay ourselves down that we might be worked in amongst the layers of our past; a past that can only feed and nourish us if we have the courage to let it go, let it become the foundation for something new.

No matter how chaotic and painful that transition might be for any one of us, if we can connect to that heart-knowing, that still centre – even if only for a second – we will be ok. I have had a kind of grit in my spiritual eye of late; feeling ill has been a challenge that has made staying connected to that still centre much tougher than at any other point in my life so far. However, I know that it is still there, I feel it in the gaze of deer and the light of stars, the dark, seething ocean and the leaves of autumn.

Singing over the Bones

The year is releasing itself, letting go with the kind of intense beauty that never fails to inspire awe in me. There was a time I used to dread this season, sensing the darkness closing in; the claustrophobia of the encroaching winter. Now I see how beautiful this time of year is. The sun is low in the sky producing a golden light whose filter adds an even greater warmth to the colour of autumn trees; the sunsets are vivid and mists gather in the folds and recesses of the land, hovering over water meadows and sliding down cliffs, reaching out across the sea until the boundary between land and ocean is no more and we can no longer tell where one world ends and another begins.

This blurring of the boundaries between worlds is very much a theme of the Pagan festival of Samhain which now approaches. As the year releases its grip on life, the harvest gathered and stored, the nights lengthening, we turn away from the light and growth and move towards the darkness and repose. It can be a challenging time because the darkness is not only about stillness, rest and germination – it is also the place where our fears lurk; our eyes do not adjust easily to its shadows and our anxieties twist and distort their shapes.

There comes a point when the darkness and stillness of winter have a peace about them; we get a real sense of life waiting beneath the soil for re-emergence; there is a restfulness – a natural, easy pause after the out breath of the year – that centres and calms us. Samhain’s energy proceeds this time and is much more vivid and intense, much the way that spring’s energy is, only then, of course, the energy surges outward, carrying into the world an expanding tide of life. I find autumn as intense but the energy is one that has built throughout the summer months to this moment of powerful release.

Birth and death can be chaotic and dangerous transitions; they connect us to our most primal instincts and emotions, powering through us, gripping us. Despite our efforts to remain poised and in control, we can find ourselves broken apart by the experience. Samhain functions like the breaking of an emotional dam, it is the release of orgasm, it is the death rattle of our last breath and the shocking gasp of our first – and all of these moments teach us that losing control is a necessary function. We all have to make peace with the fact that ultimately we are not in control. Life moves through us, at times with an intensity that shakes us; losing control demands that we place our trust in that intensity, learning to accept that it has the power to change us; that its presence in our lives is sometimes necessary for life to move on. We understand this most clearly when we find ourselves in experiences that speak of those vivid energies of spring and autumn: when we fall in love; when we are forced to begin again; when we are ill; when we are dying to our old selves and venturing into new ways to be.

Samhain may well stir our deepest fears of death but its lessons are invaluable and its powerful energy cathartic and potentially creative. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes in her wonderful ‘Women who run with the Wolves’, the Cailleach, or Death Mother -whom we meet when we explore this festival’s Mysteries – teaches us the wisdom of the bones. Estes writes that ‘in archetypal symbology, bones represent the indestructible force…the indestructible soul-spirit.’

And so,

You can dent the soul and bend it. You can hurt it and scar it. You can leave the marks of illness upon it, and the scotch marks of fear. But it does not die, for it is protected by ‘La Loba’ in the underworld. She is both the finder and incubator of bones…

…within us is the old one who collects bones. Within us there are the soul-bones of this wild self. Within us is the potential to be fleshed out again as the creature we once were. Within us are the bones to change ourselves and our world. Within us is the breath and our truths and longings – together they are the song, the creation hymn we have been yearning to sing…

Samhain teaches us how to recognise what must die and what must live in our lives. It can bring some tough realisations but its transformative energy gives us the opportunity to live a more authentic life.

Estes writes that ‘La Loba’ sings over the bones; her singing fleshes out those bones and, in time, reanimates them. So, what song will you sing this Samhain?

 

 

Feeding on the Wing

It can be a great comfort to perceive of oneself as part of an ongoing collective tale. We often rail against humanity’s potential to inflict cruelty, pain and suffering and yet I cannot help but feel compassion and admiration. It is remarkable to me that humans continue to live and love, often with passion and commitment, knowing that all they cherish will one day be taken from them. Never knowing the reason for, or meaning of, our existence, we are compelled only to live and accept the mystery, bearing the suffering (when it comes) with grace.

We are in this together. Our bonds of love, joy, pain and loss, and the wisdom that each of these brings us, rings like a clear, pure, infinite note through time; resonating in our cellular and ancestral memories, a baton of sound passed down and on, each of our experiences, deepening and enriching its tone. Our voice is added to the many, becoming a part of the complex and mysterious song of the universe; this song is ever unfolding and reshaping itself that its expression might be truer, more authentic, more itself. Such a perspective can develop an inspiring and enduring sense that our losses are never in vain, any more than our joys.

We do not have to wait until crisis hits to connect and draw strength from our spiritual sources. We can learn to feed and nourish ourselves at all moments, aware that we are emotionally collecting and storing materials that will help us access our resilience more easily and in doing so make the journey through any dark times ahead a little more bearable. These will not necessarily remove the pain but can ease the passage, encouraging us to place our trust in the notion that – in a world that is fuelled by the cycles of movement and change – all things pass.

A primary source for inspiration is found when we go outside, when we engage with the natural world, allowing ourselves to be open to its deep wisdom and nourishment. All that we could want to know about ourselves can be found reflected in the countless daily expressions of life.  

On the steep chalk slope of Culver Down on the Isle of Wight, on the heights looking out over the broad sands of White Cliff Bay, I sat beneath and amongst a vast gathering of swallows feeding upon the wing. Their numbers were countless; looking up through the frenetic twists and turns of their flight, I could discern yet more and more, those at the greatest height merely dots of black, humming particles, the air vibrating with their constant movement.

I had always assumed that like most birds that migrate, swallows increase their feeding just prior to their journey, building up their body weight in order to cope with the arduous demands that face them. Apparently not – feasting entirely on flying insects, they will nourish themselves on the wing, covering 200 miles in a day of what will become a 6,000 mile journey.

I had always thought that the taking on of extra nourishment before such an incredibly tough challenge was a rather helpful metaphor for our own descent into winter/crisis, advising a psychological storing and gathering for tougher times. Learning that these wonderfully joyful creatures do not in fact ‘bulk up’, led to a shift in my thinking. What if, when we find ourselves facing times of trouble or difficulty, we also find that our inner stores are low or near empty? What if we haven’t prepared for the descent into darkness and cold? How would we survive what appears to be an impossible task?

This idea of feeding upon the wing – of taking in what we need throughout an ongoing challenge, seemed to me an equally poignant metaphor. So often when we are faced with loss, we simply don’t feel up to that challenge, our reserves seemingly depleted and inadequate. Like swallows, we have to place our trust in the hope that we will find what we need to make it through, constantly nourishing ourselves as best we can. The swallow’s migration remains arduous and dangerous, many starve and die, and yet many more eventually find themselves back in the warmth and abundance of their winter homes. Their migratory urge is a part of their life and being, deeply encoded within their DNA; the experience is not something that they can choose to avoid or embrace – it simply is. Loss’s presence in our lives is similarly inevitable. If we can stay present, moving through the ups and downs with compassion for ourselves, sensing when we need to feed ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, doing this as best we can given that we might feel utterly broken and incapable of going any further, we might eventually find that we too find ourselves once more ‘at home’ within ourselves and our lives.

Each swallow must beat it own wings to fly but their journeys are never performed alone. Thousands upon thousands fly together, bedding down in large roosts. All swallows will make their bi-annual pilgrimage of necessity, just as all humans will descend into loss and emerge into renewal; all swallows are designed to have great manoeuvrability and endurance; all humans are designed this way too. The swallows inspired me to want to write something about loss that recognised that our deeper engagement with nature was effectively a process of feeding upon the wing; that when we feel broken, nature speaks to us in ways that can aid our healing or support us through. They also made me want to write a spiritual exploration of loss that might say something about those bonds of experience that we share, acknowledging, honouring and giving thanks for them and our place in the greater story of living and dying, both human and in the wider world of nature. By recognising ourselves as vitally connected to the lives of those beings (both human and otherwise) that have gone, those that are, and those still to be, we gradually discover a deeper sense of compassion for our own trials and sorrows, and perhaps in the process, uncover something of the purpose and the meaning of loss and struggle in our lives. Following the thread backwards and forwards, we can perceive a little of the pattern, and this alone can help us to tap into our resilience and strength, aiding us to feel a little less alone when the tough times strike.

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